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Germany

FDP Leader Issues Ultimatum to State Leader in anti-Semitism Flap

The German parliament and the leader of the Free Democratic Party on Wednesday sought to rein in a growing spat between party leaders and Germany's leading Jewish group over allegations of anti-Semitism in the FDP.

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Under pressure: An anti-Semitism flap is dampening Guido Westerwelle's chances for election.

FDP chairman Guido Westerwelle issued an ultimatum to his party chief in North Rhine-Westphalia on Wednesday, saying that if Jamal Karsli is not removed from the FDP's group in the state parliament by Monday he would no longer "work together" with state party chief Jürgen Möllemann. For days now, Westerwelle has been seeking to find a way to eliminate Karsli while still retaining Möllemann, his state party chief and political protege.

Möllemann has been under fire for comments he made in defense of Syrian-born Karsli, who sought to join the liberal FDP after bolting from the Green Party because he believed it had become too pro-Israel in its policies.

In a shrill exchange of salvos, Möllemann accused Michel Friedman, vice president of the Central Council of Jews and a prominent figure in German media, of fueling the spread of anti-Semitism in Germany with his "intolerant, hateful style."

Despite massive pressure from within the party and without, Möllemann has steadfastly refused to apologize for his attack or remove Karsli.

"A problem for the FDP"

Earlier this week the Central Council of Jews' president, Paul Spiegel, said the dispute between his organization and Möllemann was final, and that it had now become a "problem for the FDP."

"We're not going to beg for an apology," Spiegel told the "Financial Times Deutschland" newspaper. "To regret a misunderstanding isn't enough. There were no misunderstandings - there was an insult."

Spiegel described Möllemann's statements as the greatest insult to German Jews since 1945. Former Council chairman Ignatz Bubis, also a prominent member of the FDP, would "role over in his grave if he heard the voices inside his party today," he said.

Wednesday's ultimatum marks a total shift to for Westerwelle, who had been supportive of Möllemann until a special party meeting in Düsseldorf whereby Möllemann and other members of the state party group voted to allow the politically independent Karsli to continue to sit with them in the state legislature.

They did so on the condition that Karsli would not make any more statements that could be perceived as anti-Israel or anti-Semitic.

An outspoken critic

Karsli has been an outspoken opponent of Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories. In an interview published in a right-wing German newspaper, Karsli compared the Israeli government’s offensive in the West Bank to the Nazis. In another interview, he criticized the media influence of the "Zionist lobby" in Germany for presenting a one-sided view of the violence in the Middle East.

When he originally requested permission to join the FDP, many in the party rejected him for his strong anti-Israel statements; some even cautioned that Karsli was anti-Semitic. But Möllemann, who is also the head of the German-Arab Society, stood steadfastly behind Karsli and defended him and the freedom to criticize Israel in several public statements.

The political frenzy over Karsli and Möllemann has come at a difficult time for the FDP, which is seeking to become a coalition partner in the German government after the September 22 elections. The party, with Westerwelle as its chancellor candidate, is seeking 18 percent of the vote and had indeed seen its fortunes rise in public opinion polls until the allegations of anti-Semitism arose. Westerwelle has argued that statements critical of the Israeli government should not be reflexively labeled as anti-Semitic.

Nevertheless, the latest poll by the Forsa Institute suggests that the public isn't buying his argument. For the first time since April, the FDP has fallen below the 10 percent mark, with a three-point drop in the latest survey.

Parliament: Is the FDP anti-Semitic?

Seeking to stave off growing international concern about an alleged upswing in anti-Semitic sentiment, the Bundestag, Germany's parliament, took up the issue on Wednesday.

During the special hearing, the Social Democrats and the Greens, who lead a coalition government, accused the FDP of veering onto a right-wing course - a charge that Westerwelle vociferously denied. Westerwelle said his party had been centrist for decades and planned stay that way. He also accused the coalition of conducting a cheap "smear campaign" against the FDP.

The former chairman of the Christian Democratic Union, Wolfgang Schäuble said there was no suspicion that the FDP had become a party doing trade in anti-Semitism, and warned against "exaggeration" of the issue.

"I don't believe that anti-Semitism has a chance in Germany," Schäuble said. "Nor should it ever be given another chance in Germany."

However, Volker Beck, the Greens' spokesman for legal issues, said the Bundestag debate was necessary.

"The Bundestag can't remain silent when the Central Council of Jews in Germany feels it has been left alone at a time when threats against Jews are growing at a worrying rate." Beck said it was "monstrous" that the FDP is "putting words into the mouths of anti-Semites."

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